HOUSTON — The Bengals closed the regular season with a 7-1 finish that featured their best players playing the best when they needed them most, but in Saturday's AFC Wild Card game at Reliant Stadium they couldn't summon the synergy that produced their third playoff appearance in four years.
Instead, head coach Marvin Lewis's playoff record dropped to 0-4 when the Texans took advantage of the worst offensive show in the 34-game era of quarterback Andy Dalton and A. J. Green and posted a 19-13 victory that put them into next week's AFC Divisional round after beating the Bengals in this game for the second straight year.
The Bengals were supposed to be rising and the Texans were supposed to be diving, but another stale offensive day quickly squashed that. The offense that scored just seven touchdowns in December wasn't any better in January. They didn't score a touchdown for the second time in three weeks and didn't have a third-down conversion without benefit of a penalty. In managing just 127 yards passing, the first-team offense finished the season scoring just one touchdown in the last 10 quarters.
Dalton finished 14-of-30 with a 44.7 passer rating and the ugliness was spread out. About 15 percent of the team's 48 snaps went for no yards or negative yards and two were screen passes, two were sacks and two were runs.
And Cincinnati's second-best in the NFL sack unit didn't register one.
But somehow the defense kept the Bengals in it and, amazingly, gave the offense a chance to win it with 2:57 left in the game and the Bengals looking at a third-and-11 from the Texans 36. Green beat cornerback Johnathan Joseph on a double move down the right side and he was open in the end zone, but it was overthrown. And wide receiver Marvin Jones couldn't get the first down on a quick slant on fourth down, coming up three yards short.
Dalton didn't target Green in the entire first half and he didn't get it to him until 10:15 left in the third quarter. Their 45-yard connection seconds later—Green's first 40-yard-plus catch since Nov. 25—set up Josh Brown's 34-yard field goal with 7:48 left in the third quarter that cut it to 16-10. Defensive end Connor Barwin forced it when he came around the edge on third down on left tackle Andrew Whitworth and knocked the ball out of Dalton's hand.
But on the next series on a route over the middle, Dalton tried to hit Green quickly and Green looked like he didn't think it was coming. The ball sailed into the arms of Joseph and the Texans had the ball at the Cincinnati 26 with 3:06 left in the third quarter.
But the Bengals defense just didn't give up even though it had some adversity. It came up with another stand in a series it lost third cornerback Adam Jones with a hamstring injury. Rookie WILL backer Vontaze Burfict's four-yard loss on running back Arian Foster helped force Shayne Graham's fourth field goal, a 24-yarder with 14:17 left in the game that made the score 19-10. Nate Clements, already playing safety for the injured Chris Crocker, had to move to the nickel to replace Jones while Taylor Mays checked in at safety.
The Texans got their only touchdown with the aid of two penalties, a 15-yard interference penalty on rookie cornerback Chris Lewis-Harris working against the returner, and a holding call on linebacker Manny Lawson on third down that negated an incomplete pass. Foster, smashing to the most rushing yards against the Bengals this season with 140 on 32 carries, punched it in from the 1 with 10:31 left in the third quarter to give the Texans a 16-7 lead.
The Bengals allowed 420 yards, the most since they gave up 431 against Denver in Week 8, but it was hardly all the defense's fault since it was on the field for 77 snapps while the offense had just 48.
The bad news for the Bengals after their worst offensive effort in the first half all season and maybe of any other was that Foster had more touches than the Bengals ran plays while Cincinnati had the ball for less than six minutes with Dalton completing just four of 10 passes for three yards.
But the good news was the defense held Houston to two red-zone field goals and another from 48 yards while scoring its fourth defensive touchdown in as many weeks and went into halftime down just 9-7.
With its offense invisible, the Bengals defense again came to the rescue. Cornerback Leon Hall, who scored the only Bengals touchdown in the playoff-clinching win in Pittsburgh, did it again early in the second quarter when he read the eyes of Texans quarterback Matt Schaub, jumped a route inttended for fullback James Casey on the sideline, picked the pass, made a dance step to stay in-bounds and went in from 21 yards out to give the Bengals an improbable 7-6 lead with 9:30 left in the half.
Still, the Bengals defense got worn down with a ridiculous time of possession against the Bengals: 23 minutes to seven minutes, thanks to an offense that didn't come close to getting the ball in the hands of its best player and couldn't block defensive tackle J.J. Watt in the screen game or on some pass rushes. Watt had one of his signature sacks in the half working against right guard Kevin Zeitler and center Kyle Cook.
And when Dalton did get a ball off, tight end Jermaine Gresham had two drops and he waited too long to launch a deep ball to wide receiver Marvin Jones at the Texans 10, where it was broken up by cornerback Kareem Jackson.
Bengals running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis had 43 yards on three carries, but the Bengals didn't have it long enough to get anything established. They were 0-for-4 on third down and Dalton just couldn't get anything going with a net of minus 6 yards. The Bengals finished the game 0-for-9 on third-down conversions.
Naturally, the defense kept the Bengals in it. It came into the game preventing TDs on 12 of its previous 17 red-zone trips and did it again Saturday three out of four times.
Graham kicked a 27-yarder following a Bengals red-zone stand with 13:07 left in the first half to make it 6-0 when the secondary made Schaub check it down to force the field goal.
Then after Hall's touchdown, the Texans had a third-and-three from the Bengals 4, but Schaub didn't make a very good throw to Pro Bowl wide receiver Andre Johnson cutting to the sideline in the end zone and the incompletion forced Graham's 22-yard field goal to make it 9-7 with 2:23 left in the half.
But it was a costly drive that consumed 7:11 with the Texans grinding out two third-and-ones as Foster channeled last year's 153-yard effort in this game.
After Hall gave the Bengals the lead, they had a great chance to take control of the game on the next snap when safety Reggie Nelson forced Foster to lose four yards on a swing pass to set up a second-and-14. But middle linebacker Rey Maualuga missed a tackle on a draw to Foster for 13 yards and the Texans converted before tight Garrett Graham beat Maualuga for a 20-yard catch. Maualuga then left the game for an IV and returned for the second half.
The Bengals did a decent job in the first half against the pass working without safety Chris Crocker, holding 112-catch receiver Andre Johnson to two catches for 30 yards and Schaub to 19-of-26 passing for 144 yards and a 70 passer rating. But a defense that allowed just 97 yards per game on the ground gave up 106 in the half.
The Texans got Graham's 48-yard field goal on the second drive of the game that started at the Texans 4 to take a 3-0 lead with 7:49 left in the first quarter.
Kevin Huber's 53-yard punt and a Texans penalty for a block in the back pinned Houston at the 4, but the Texans got out of it quickly when tight end Owen Daniels beat Maualuga over the middle on a short flip that turned into an 18-yard gain and Foster ran the stretch play for 17 yards. When wide receiver Keshawn Martin was open on a reverse to the left for 16 more, the Texans were rolling at the Bengals 38.
But the Bengals got a big stop from defensive tackle Geno Atkins on second-and-two on running back Ben Tate's run for no yards and the Texans opted to throw it on third-and-2 and Schaub couldn't hit Daniels to force Graham's field goal.
The Bengals could have had a first down on their second snap, but Gresham dropped one over the middle and when Dalton went back to him over the middle on third-and-eight, free safety Glover Quinn knocked it away. Then the next drive got blown up on Houston's one sack of the half when Watt came up the middle.
The Bengals and Texans defenses came out crisply with three-and-outs to start the game. Cincinnati limited Schaub to a two-yard gain on the first snap when the Bengals blanketed the receivers on play-action bootleg. The Bengals then swarmed a screen to Foster for a four-yard loss.
But the defense could only do so much in a half the Texans ran 47 plays to Cincinnati's 18.
PREGAME NOTES: Chris Crocker, the man who helped solidify the Cincinnati defense's run to the sixth ranking in the NFL rankings, didn't suit up for Saturday's AFC Wild Card game against the Texans at Reliant Stadium and the Bengals turned to 12-year veteran Nate Clements to make his sixth career start at safety.
Crocker, who was limping in last year's Wild Card game on a bad knee, suffered a bruised thigh last week in the first quarter of the win over the Ravens. Clements came into the season with 159 starts at cornerback before he was switched to safety early in the season. Then the Bengals brought in Crocker off the street in late September and Clements was relegated to a backup role with Leon Hall and Terence Newman becoming the starting cornerbacks.
Also inactive for the Bengals on Saturday were cornerback Jason Allen, running back Daniel Herron, defensive tackles Devon Still and Brandon Thompson, tight end Richard Quinn, and wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher.
With the Texans putting inside linebacker Tim Dobbins on injured reserve, the Texans went to their fourth backer to give Barrett Ruud his second start of the season. Brian Cushing and Darryl Sharpton are already on injured reserve.
The Texans introduced their defense while Lewis sent out for his captains The Establishment: Andy Dalton, Rey Maualuga, Domata Peko, Andrew Whitworth and Dan Skuta.